The apostles returned to Jesus from their ministry tour and told him all they had done and taught. Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat. So they left by boat for a quiet place, where they could be alone. But many people recognized them and saw them leaving, and people from many towns ran ahead along the shore and got there ahead of them. Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things …Did you know that somewhere in America, it is illegal to feed the homeless in public? It can’t be true can it? It is true in Fort Lauderdale, Florida after passage of an ordinance by the city council. The scary part is that Fort Lauderdale is not alone in taking this anti-compassionate stance. Why would any city want to stop the feeding of the homeless in public? The City of Fort Lauderdale claims that they don’t want hungry and homeless people fed in public because they claim it will only keep them from trying to get out of the cycle of homelessness. “It’s a pubic safety issue. It’s a public health issue,” Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler rationalizes. “The experts have all said that if you’re going to feed them to get them from breakfast to lunch to dinner, all you’re doing is enabling that cycle of homelessness.” Not only that, the city has arrested and jailed people who have decided to break the law and feed the homeless on the streets. It seems that Fort Lauderdale would rather punish the poor and the people trying to help them rather than attempt to help solve some of the problems that lead people into the streets.
After they had crossed the lake, they landed at Gennesaret. They brought the boat to shore and climbed out. The people recognized Jesus at once, and they ran throughout the whole area, carrying sick people on mats to wherever they heard he was. Wherever he went—in villages, cities, or the countryside—they brought the sick out to the marketplaces. They begged him to let the sick touch at least the fringe of his robe, and all who touched him were healed. Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Imagine a similar situation in Jesus’ day. Grinding poverty. Immoderate taxes. Oppressive laws. A widening gap between the haves and have-nots -- a time when those in power use excessive fear and force to dominate, all in the name of peace. Imagine hungry crowds of people with nothing. Imagine Jesus, who orchestrates a miraculous mass feeding of thousands of hungry people. The story that we call “The Feeding of the 5000” is the context of the scriptures we just heard. By feeding hungry crowds of people, Jesus criticizes a political economy that becomes rich on the suffering of others. He indicts a political economy in which the shepherds have failed to feed the sheep. He has compassion on his people. And they run to him. With all of their needs, with their hopes for the future, with their thirst for justice, they run to him. The hungry sheep who have been ignored by their shepherds will do anything to be in the presence of Jesus.
If that was you, to what lengths would you go to be with Jesus? I really love the closing lines of today’s reading: Wherever he went—in villages, cities, or the countryside—they brought the sick out to the marketplaces. They begged him to let the sick touch at least the fringe of his robe, and all who touched him were healed. The Greek word translated as “touch” can also mean “to fasten.” The idea is not that people casually touch Jesus as he passes by, and they are healed. They fasten themselves to him. It is a kind of touch that transforms everyone.
We need that kind of healing transformation, don’t we? As we mark the one-year anniversary of Eric Garner being choked to death by NYC police, I’ve been thinking about how we still live in time if oppressive poverty, immoderate taxation, oppressive laws and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots – a time when those in power use fear and force to dominate, all in the name of peace. Just this week, two black women, 18-year-old Kindra Chapman and 28-year-old Sandra Bland, were found hanged in jail cells under suspicious circumstances. Video shows Sandra beaten by police for what was supposed to be a routine traffic stop. Saturday morning, almost a year to the day that Garner was killed, Jonathan Sanders was buried. The Stonewall, Miss., man was unarmed when he was allegedly choked to death by a white police officer, and according to relatives, the 39-year-old father gasped, “I can’t breathe.”
Some people, in a flash of insight, will see the troubles of the world, will see systems of oppression and injustice, and choose to respond. Ask people. Ask them, “What did you do once you knew? What did you do once your soul was opened to the cruelty around us?”
For some people, the answer will be, “Nothing. I didn’t do anything” People who are content with the world as it is don’t think they need a shepherd who liberates sheep from hunger and oppression. People who benefit from normalcy, people who are successful under current conditions, have no reason to believe that God desires a different social order.
Some people will look at the current order and want to take us back to the Golden Age when everything was better. They will want to re-establish paradise on earth. It’s a form of retreat, really. It a way of saying, “Let’s go back to how things used to be. We were happier then.” The challenge with retreat is that it abandons our participation in actual struggles for justice.
If we choose to either ignore problems or retreat from them, we are being passive. Jesus never taught passivity in the face of evil.
“What did you do once your soul was opened to the cruelty around us?” Some people will look at the current order and lead us to a future end-time at which God will restore justice and punish the wicked and unrighteous. Some people teach that God is waiting for just the right moment to break in and make everything right again. The challenge with this worldview is that justice is often replaced with a divine vengeance that results in human slaughter. I am firm in by belief that Jesus abhorred violence. He offered a way by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored, a way by which the oppressor can be resisted without being emulated; a way by which enemies can be neutralized without being destroyed.
“What did you do once your soul was opened to the cruelty around us?” I want to propose another way. It’s a way that’s been taught and practiced by many others – the way of non-violent love. It has to do with running to Jesus and fastening ourselves to his love. Our primary calling in life is to receive and trust justice-making and compassionate love, and to live it into the world. We refuse to accept injustice by living in nonviolent protest against a violent world. Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan puts it this way:
"If enough people ... lived in nonviolent protest against systemic evil, against the normalcies of this world's discrimination, exploitation and oppression - the result would be a new world we could hardly imagine.”The idea that human beings could actually create such a just, peaceful world by fastening ourselves to non-violent love is almost unbelievable. When we try, we can’t seem to sustain it. This land is replete with profoundly caring human beings, motivated not only by self-interest but also by infinite wellsprings of compassion and by desire for justice and goodness. And yet everyday life, a “good life” in the United States, entails consumption, production, and acquisition that threaten Earth’s capacity to sustain life as we know it, and exploits vast numbers of people worldwide, some even unto death.
We need to be careful here. The critique of non-violence is that white people have a distorted conception of the meaning of violence itself. We like to think of violence as breaking the laws of society or creating disorder or disharmony. That is a very narrow understanding of reality. There is a much more deadly form of violence, and it is camouflaged in such slogans as “law and order,” “freedom and democracy,” and “the American way of life.” Our society has whole a social structure that appears outwardly to be ordered and respectable but is ridden by racism and hatred inwardly. Violence is embedded in American law, and it is blessed by the keepers of moral sanctity. If we take seriously the idea of human dignity, then we know that the annihilation of Indians, the enslavement of Africans, and the making of heroes out of slaveholders were America’s first crimes against humankind.
Change is in the air. Turn to God’s non-violent will, and God’s non-violent will circle back to you. Nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Turning, conversion, change – these are all ways of stepping out of the way we’ve always done it, so we can live into God’s promise of redemption and release.
What can we do? What did we do when our souls were opened to the cruelty around us? I’d like to say we ran. We ran away from our fears of inadequacy and ran to Jesus. We fastened ourselves to non-violent love. We fastened ourselves to the kind of love that confronts violence and injustice wherever we find it. We fastened ourselves to the kind of love that challenges prejudicial jokes or remarks. We fastened ourselves to the kind of love that challenges the purveyors and sponsors of violence. We fastened ourselves to the kind of love that that steps up against gun violence. We fastened ourselves to the kind of love that explores new frontiers of equality, whether it be transgender rights in the workplace, food security for those who are hungry, or immigration reform on our borders, or Black Lives Matter in our own backyards. We fastened ourselves to the kind of love that puts into practices the words and example of Dr. King:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late...Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘too late.’... Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful —struggle for a new world.”